(Bloomberg) – When Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates announced their surprising split after 27 years of marriage, they said there would be no changes to their $ 50 billion foundation.
Now, about three weeks later, after revelations that Melinda had considered divorce years earlier, in part due to Bill’s ties to Jeffrey Epstein, and reports of his dubious behavior at Microsoft Corp., there are signs that one of the most powerful philanthropists in the world changes organizations.
Mark Suzman, the Gates Foundation’s chief executive officer, told staff that he is holding talks to “strengthen the foundation’s long-term sustainability and stability.”
“I am actively discussing with Bill and Melinda the steps they and Warren could take,” Suzman said in a statement Thursday, referring to billionaire Warren Buffett, the third member of the Board of Trustees.
Suzman said no decisions had been made but added that Bill and Melinda “have reaffirmed their commitment to the foundation and continue to work together on behalf of our mission”. He also made it clear, “The Foundation has never received any allegations of harassment regarding Bill.”
It is the latest twist in what appears to be a deepening split.
Since the divorce report posted on Twitter, it has been reported that Bill was having an extramarital affair and following other office novels with Microsoft employees. The New York Times reported Wednesday that Gates had received complaints about the behavior of Michael Larson, who heads Cascade Investment, which has been overseeing Gates’ assets for decades.
The media attack tainted Gates’ geeky techno-philanthropist personality and questioned whether the couple can work side-by-side without disrupting the operations of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that they are considering bringing in outside directors, citing people who have not been identified.
There are currently only three trustees: Gates, French Gates, and Buffett, who have added more than $ 27 billion of his own money to the foundation over the past 15 years.
Changes to the structure of the foundation could have a major impact on its direction.
Adding more people to the board could “democratize the final decision-making process,” said Maribel Morey, philanthropy historian and executive director at the Miami Institute for the Social Sciences.
The three-person board is unusually small for a foundation of its size. The Ford Foundation, which is roughly one-fifth the size of the Gates Foundation, has 15 members on its board of directors. The Rockefeller Foundation, which is one-tenth the size, has no less than 12 at any given time.
Expanding the board would be positive, Morey said, and they could use it to add diversity.
“Right now, it’s a mutually beneficial decision as the Gates Foundation is being scrutinized much more closely on one level,” Morey said. “On another level, it makes a lot more sense to include other people in the room when you’re a divorced couple with just one other person on the board.”
The fate of the foundation is only one aspect of the divorce.
The 65-year-old Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, is the fourth richest person in the world with a net worth of $ 143.8 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
His greatest asset is Cascade, the holding company he founded with proceeds from Microsoft stock sales and dividends from Larson. Through Cascade, Gates has interests in real estate, energy, and hospitality, and has interests in dozens of public companies, including Canadian National Railway and Deere & Co. The Gateses are also among the largest privately owned landowners in the United States
In the past few weeks, several shares worth more than $ 3 billion have been transferred from Cascade to French Gates, including Deere, Canadian National Railway Co., and AutoNation Inc.
That’s only a fraction of the roughly $ 50 billion public equity that the company has reported.